WASHINGTON — We are about to have a major foreign policy debate in the guise of a confirmation battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense and the related argument over how long American troops should stay in Afghanistan. President Obama should use this opportunity to stand up for his broader vision of how American power can be sustained and used, even if that doesn’t come naturally to a pragmatist who likes making decisions one at a time.
Underlying this clash will be another over whether the United States is in long-term decline. We are not, and the decline discussion should not scare us. We seem to have it every few decades.
We had it in 1960 when John F. Kennedy promised to “get the country moving again.” We had it in 1980 after Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan pledged to “make America great again.”
And in 2008, with China rising, our country bogged down in a dispiriting war in Iraq and an economy in freefall, Obama came along touting “hope” and “change we can believe in.” The operative verb was “believe,” and in 2012, Mitt Romney paid Obama the compliment of using the very same word in his “Believe in America” slogan. We desperately want to believe in ourselves.
Obama’s harshest critics are essentially charging that he has accepted American decline. They are convinced he wants to pull back from the world and slash the Pentagon budget to make room for more domestic spending. He’s often accused of making the Western European choice: less for the military, more for the welfare state. Hagel, a critic of Pentagon bloat and of America’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, is seen as Obama’s nominally Republican agent in achieving this transformation.
Let’s look first at the partial truths embodied in a critique that otherwise misreads Obama’s intentions.